Questions about ‘What Is Morality?’

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 7, 2009 in Ethics

Update: also see the new desire utilitarianism F.A.Q.

Today I published my free ebook/audiobook about atheistic morality:

What Is Morality? [pdf, mp3]

I anticipate lots of questions about the theory explained and defended in the book, desire utilitarianism. (Desire utilitarianism is also called desirism, a term which I prefer, so from now on I will refer to it as desirism.)

So here’s my Desirism F.A.Q. It assumes you’re familiar with the basics of the theory, as outlined in my book. If you don’t know the basics, read my book. It’s very short. Or listen to the audiobook.

Also, note that everything here is up for argument. If there are fatal problems with desirism, then we must scrap it and move on. If the basics of it are correct, but its main theorist (Alonzo Fyfe) has made some mistakes applying it to certain situations, then it should be revised.

All your questions will be more competently answered by the author of desirism, not by me, so the links go to articles on his websites.

Basics

These are the answers to some common questions about the meta-ethical claims and foundations of desire utilitarianism.

  • Can you give a brief overview of desirism? See here. Also, read: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.
  • Why should I choose desirism? See here.
  • Is morality subjective or objective, absolute or relative? Read: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.
  • How can you have ethics without God? Read: 1, 2.
  • Are there moral facts? What’s wrong with error theory? Read 1, 2.
  • Aren’t you just saying that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value, that we should do whatever fulfills the most desires? No! Read 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
  • Why desire “fulfillment” instead of desire “satisfaction”? See here.
  • What do you mean, “reasons for action“? See: 1, 2, 3.
  • Why should I accept your definition of “morality”? Definitions are not important. Read: 1, 2, 3, 4.
  • Isn’t this just like preference utilitarianism? No. Also read: 1, 2.
  • What’s wrong with common utilitarianism? See the above question, and also read: 1, 2, 3.
  • What’s wrong with Kantianism? See here.
  • What’s wrong with non-cognitivism? See here.
  • What’s wrong with virtue ethics? See here.
  • Isn’t happiness the sole good? No. Also read: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
  • Does it matter how many people are wronged? Not really.
  • Isn’t morality simply an evolved sentiment? Read: 1, 2, 3, 4.
  • What about G.E. Moore’s naturalistic fallacy? See here.
  • What about Hume’s is/ought gap? See here and here.
  • Okay, so how do I use desirism to make moral decisions? What should I do? Read: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.
  • How do I become a better person? See here.

Implications

Here are some answers about the basic theoretical implications of desirism.

  • What about animals? Don’t they have desires? Yes. Read: 1, 2, 3, 4.
  • Is there such a thing as group responsibility? Sort of.
  • How does free will affect desirism? Read: 1, 2, 3.
  • How can we morally persuade others? Some thoughts here.
  • What is justice? Read: 1, 2, 3.
  • What about social contract theory? See here.
  • Since we all act to fulfill our desires, are you saying we’re all selfish? No.
  • Why should I care about the desires of others? See here.
  • Can I ever relax, or must I spend every waking moment doing good? Some thoughts.
  • So, do rights exist? See here.
  • How does desirism account for negligence? See here.
  • How does it account for “bad Samaritan” situations? See here.
  • What about non-obligatory permissions? See here.
  • What about excuses? See here.
  • What about “mens rea” or “guilty mind”? See here.
  • How does desirism deal with moral dilemmas? See here.
  • What about actions that are above and beyond the call of duty? See here.
  • I don’t like some of the implications of desirism. That’s irrelevant.
  • Can what is moral change throughout time? Yes, because the world changes.
  • How does desirism deal with the problem of moral luck? See: 1, 2, 3.

Applied Ethics

These are some answers about what happens when we apply desirism to common moral situations. Remember, you should not judge desirism based on its implications (based on whether it agrees with your accidental moral prejudices), but based on whether or not it accurately describes what morally relevant facts there are about the real world.

  • Is it okay to harm someone to prevent them from doing wrong? Sometimes.
  • Can there be a just war? Yes. Also read: 1, 2.
  • Is patriotism good? Not really.
  • Is capitalism good? Some thoughts: 1, 2, 3.
  • Is taxation okay? Yes.
  • What about libertarianism? See here.
  • What about freedom? See here.
  • What should we do about offensive speech? See here.
  • Should “free speech” include calls to do harm? No.
  • Do people always have a right to their opinion? No.
  • What about abortion? See here and here.
  • What about stem cell research? See here.
  • What about homosexuality? See here.
  • What about pornography? Read: 1, 2.
  • Is capital punishment okay? Some thoughts.
  • What should we do about global warming and environmental problems? Some thoughts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
  • What about human cloning? See here.
  • What’s the value of survival? See here.
  • What’s the value of truth? Read: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
  • Is stealing ever okay? Some thoughts.
  • Is ridicule okay? Sometimes.
  • What obligations do we have to children? Read: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
  • Are protests ethical? See here.
  • Is anger okay? Yes.

About

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{ 60 comments… read them below or add one }

Rhology March 24, 2009 at 11:11 am

Hello lukeprog. I just listened to your ebook on meta-ethics. I commend the focus it requires to put out a book, to be sure, but the book itself was sadly lacking in any justification. Specifically, you didn't take it nearly deep enough and begged the question right where you needed to tackle the bull head-on.

You said:

Since desire is the only reason for action that exists, something is “good” if it fulfills the desires in question. Something is “bad” if it thwarts the desires in question. It’s that simple.

That's some leap! And it's a leap that you never justify. Why couldn't I say that something is BAD if it fulfills the desire in question? Give me a good reason.
What you seem to have done is what you criticise early in the book, which is listen to your feelings. You think rape is reprehensible, so it's obviously a bad action and you build your theory around it. But I don't grant that rape is bad, so I need you to give me a good reason to agree with you about the alignment of desire with “good/bad” language.

You said:
If you say that it is “good” for the victim to be raped, relative to her desires to not be raped, you are objectively wrong.

You mean, I am objectively wrong ACCORDING TO YOUR THEORY, which is precisely that which is under question. You are playing God here even while denying Him. You are a usurper. Give me a good reason to apply “bad” to rape, and not “good”.

As long as we are clear on what our words mean

Ah, but we are not. You have simply stipulated a definition, by fiat, and expected me to fall in line. Where's your proof that this is the way it is?

Universal moral claims require a consideration of all desires.

No doubt b/c YOU say so.

No desire is intrinsically better or worse than any other desire, because intrinsic value does not exist…We ask, “How well does this desire fulfill or tend to fulfill other desires?”

1) It sounds like you have your intrinsic value right there! You're all mixed up and equivocating. Your unadmitted-to intrinsic value is circular, self-referential. Why not ask “How well does this enable the most turkeys to land on Mars?” This is a serious question.
2) And of course this leads to an infinite regress by which we end up w/o an answer, for in evaluating these other desires by which we are to judge the desire in question, we also have to evaluate those desires to see if they are good for enabling or for thwarting. Where's the bottom line?
If I were a Christian, I'd say “God is the bottom line. You may not think He exists, but at least the buck stops somewhere.” What do *you* say?

Desires, too, are good or bad according to their tendency to fulfill or thwart desires.

What you mean is that desires are good or bad according to their tendency to fulfill desires that you like or thwart desires that you don't like, and you are attempting to enjoin your likes and dislikes on everyone else. But why should we allow you that power?

Virtually all of the errors of your book flow from these serious problems with your reasoning, so I'll look forward to some answers on these. It's kind of pitiful, actually, to see what one is reduced to after an apostasy like yours. You have given up on a feast, and this crappy gruel is what you want to feed everyone else? Thanks, but no thanks.

Cheers,
Rhology

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lukeprog March 24, 2009 at 6:54 pm

Rhology,

I appreciate your comments, but my book is not a defense of desire utilitarianism at all. It can't be. It's too short. The book merely intends to present the theory, and open interest. The F.A.Q. does a better job of defending all the objections one might raise, but of course it is also incomplete. I would appreciate it if you not assume that I have no justification for what I've presented. Perhaps you could ask questions, instead?

So, let me answer your objections here.

>> “Why couldn't I say that something is BAD if it fulfills the desire in question?”

This is a confusion between questions of the meaning of terms and questions of what the terms refer to. You could very well choose to use the word “bad” to refer to desire fulfillment. You could also make up a new word, “mrignoc”, to refer to desire fulfillment. But that would not change what you are referring to: the fulfillment of desires.

The reason I propose we use “bad” to mean thwarting the desires in question is because this fits with how we use moral language. When people use moral terms like “bad”, they seem to refer to something that we have reasons for action against – reasons for action to not perform that act. I've argued that desires (or rather, the relationship between desires and states of affairs) are the only reasons for action that exist. So, combining this ontological argument with a descriptive understanding of how people use moral language, I propose that “bad” can most usefully be used to mean, “such that thwarts the desires in question.”

>> “You mean, I am objectively wrong ACCORDING TO YOUR THEORY, which is precisely that which is under question. You are playing God here even while denying Him. You are a usurper.”

Yes, of course. I'm presenting my theory. Everything in the book is “according to my theory.”

As for me playing God and being a usurper, I don't even know how to respond to that. Am I playing God because you define your God as being the only one allowed to define moral terms? Am I not equally usurping Allah? Kant's categorical imperative? Aristotle?

What do you mean by “playing God”? Am I playing God if I do something you've decided to reserve for your invisible friend, like giving and taking life? Am I thus playing God when I give a child life-saving scientific medicine?

>> “You have simply stipulated a definition, by fiat, and expected me to fall in line. Where's your proof that this is the way it is?”

Again, this is a confusion between the meaning of terms and what the terms refer to. It is fine if you do not like my definitions. It's fine if you don't think the word “morality” refers to reasons for action, but instead to God's essential character. It doesn't matter any more than whether or not we decide to call Pluto a “planet.” Even if you don't want to call what I'm talking about “morality”, it will remain the case that reasons for action exist in the world apart from God, and they have the relations described under the theory of desire utilitarianism. If we stop calling Pluto a “planet”, nothing changes about the existence of Pluto or how planet formation works in the real world.

>>Universal moral claims require a consideration of all desires.
“No doubt b/c YOU say so.”

No, I'm just describing how we use moral language. What else would “universal” mean?

>>”It sounds like you have your intrinsic value right there! You're all mixed up and equivocating. Your unadmitted-to intrinsic value is circular, self-referential.”

No. Desire fulfillment does not have intrinsic value. Alonzo Fyfe has explained this in the four articles linked above in the FAQ in answer to the question: “Aren’t you just saying that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value, that we should do whatever fulfills the most desires?”

I don't understand your question about an infinite regress. Perhaps you could rephrase it?

“What you mean is that desires are good or bad according to their tendency to fulfill desires that you like or thwart desires that you don't like, and you are attempting to enjoin your likes and dislikes on everyone else. But why should we allow you that power?”

Wrong. No desire has more intrinsic value than any other desire. The desire to rape is not intrinsically worse than the desire to feed the poor. They weigh equally in the moral calculus proposed by desire utilitarianism. Only as a result of this moral calculus can we know how morally good or bad these desires are.

You referred to something – Christianity, I suppose – as a feast. I found it ugly, ignorant, and dishonest. I certainly have no intention of carrying those qualities anymore.

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Rhology March 25, 2009 at 5:41 am

Hello lukeprog,

Yes, my challenges are meant as questions, so you may certainly take them that way. But 'tis true that I mistook your book for a defense of it. Duly noted.

You could very well choose to use the word “bad” to refer to desire fulfillment.

That wouldn't very well help us in our quest, would it?
The point that I'm not sure you're seeing here is that morality tries to answer the question of what you and I SHOULD do. How we SHOULD act. What obligations we have towards ourselves, the outside world, other people, animals, etc. Moral questions are questions of prescription.
So where's the prescriptive power in your idea here? To say “well, everyone has desires” doesn't prescribe anything, doesn't tell me whether I should act to fulfill or thwart those desires as much as I can. (Or, since you want questions) in what way does your idea tell me whether I should act to fulfill or thwart those desires as much as I can?

The intrinsic value you're hiding up your sleeve is that you apparently believe that it is better to ask “How well does this desire fulfill or tend to fulfill other desires?” and act accordingly, no? You don't seem like you want to admit it, but what other conclusion should one draw?

Again, this is a confusion between the meaning of terms and what the terms refer to. It is fine if you do not like my definitions.

Do you really not mind whether I call rape “the most morally commendable action one could perform”? I would like to ask you not to blow this off with some huffy “Fine, man, if you want to be a freak. Just stay away from me!” which is what I usually get from atheists when I pose this question. I'll expect a real answer from you, since you seem like a generally reasonable guy.

If we stop calling Pluto a “planet”, nothing changes about the existence of Pluto or how planet formation works in the real world.

But when it comes to “rape = bad” or “rape = good”, it's a fundamentally different question, isn't it?

I don't understand your question about an infinite regress. Perhaps you could rephrase it?

What I mean is that your standard of comparison is constantly shifting. To judge whether one desire is good or bad, you look at other desires and its effect on them. And if someone asks about those other desires to which you're appealing to judge the original desire, you simply wash, rinse, repeat, and appeal to other desires to see if they are more greatly fulfilled or thwarted. You never make any progress. Where's the foundation? What are you standing on?

A few side points:
Am I playing God because you define your God as being the only one allowed to define moral terms? Am I not equally usurping Allah? Kant's categorical imperative? Aristotle?

Close. God is the one who defined Himself as the source of moral goodness, and you are replacing Him with yourself. You're a usurper.
If Allah existed, yes, you'd be usurping his place.
If Kant's cat imp or Aristotle's theories had such authority as God to define such moral matters, then yes, but I don't think they do, so no.

Am I playing God if I do something you've decided to reserve for your invisible friend, like giving and taking life?

Precisely.
Let's not play games here – aren't you proposing DU as an idea that one SHOULD follow? Trying to prescribe it to me? Trying to bind it to my conscience by force of persuasion and existential appeals? There are also 6+ billion other people in the world – why listen to you over them?

Am I thus playing God when I give a child life-saving scientific medicine?

Of course not, and you should know better than to ask such a question.

I found it ugly, ignorant, and dishonest.

I don't know why you'd expect a reasonable person to think that you who have just said that the desire to rape is not intrinsically worse than the desire to feed the poor are a good judge of what is “ugly, ignorant, and dishonest”.
And of course, what if ugly, ignorant, and dishonest things are the highest moral qualities? Then you have left the highest moral quality for sthg inferior.

Cheers,
Rhology

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lukeprog March 25, 2009 at 6:47 am

>>”So where's the prescriptive power in your idea here?”

In my terminology, prescriptivity is about reasons for action. Desires are the reasons for action that exist. My whole book develops the arguments necessary to show how this one fact leads us to certain conclusions about the nature of morality.

>>”The intrinsic value you're hiding up your sleeve is that you apparently believe that it is better to ask “How well does this desire fulfill or tend to fulfill other desires?” and act accordingly, no? You don't seem like you want to admit it, but what other conclusion should one draw?”

The reason this is “better” than asking other questions is because it refers to reasons for actions that actually exist. This is a matter desire utilitarianism making claims about the universe that are true, whereas other theories of moral realism make claims about the universe that are false.

>>”Do you really not mind whether I call rape “the most morally commendable action one could perform”? I would like to ask you not to blow this off with some huffy “Fine, man, if you want to be a freak. Just stay away from me!” which is what I usually get from atheists when I pose this question. I'll expect a real answer from you, since you seem like a generally reasonable guy.”

Well, I guess I do mind. Changing the meaning of words without cause would bring confusion. So it makes sense to keep our current language. But if the whole world decided that “commendable” meant the opposite of what it means today, and we were all in agreement, then yeah, that would be fine. I just don't see any reason to do that. What you're talking about is manipulating our symbols for representing morality, not manipulating the nature of morality itself. Your proposing we use a different set of scratches to stand for a certain moral idea.

>>”Where's the foundation? What are you standing on?”

I don't think there's any incoherence in appealing to a desire's affect on the fulfillment of all other desires. If you want to see desire utilitarianism constructed from the ground up, you might try A Harmony of Desires.

>>”God is the one who defined Himself as the source of moral goodness, and you are replacing Him with yourself. You're a usurper.”

I could just as well claim that, as a Sikh believer, Vahiguru defined himself as the source of moral goodness, and you are replacing Vahiguru with Yahweh. YOU are the usurper, sir.

>>”There are also 6+ billion other people in the world – why listen to you over them? “

See Why should I choose desire utilitarianism? Answer: Because it is more likely correct than other ethical theories. It fits the evidence better.

>>”I don't know why you'd expect a reasonable person to think that you who have just said that the desire to rape is not intrinsically worse than the desire to feed the poor are a good judge of what is “ugly, ignorant, and dishonest”.”

A few centuries ago, you would have no doubt insisted that we cannot trust the moral ideas of someone who concludes that racism, sexism, and nationalism are bad. I do not think our moral feelings can be trusted any more than our “feeling” that the sun revolves around the earth, or that the earth is at the center of the universe. What matters is what best follows from the evidence gathered when we test and see what is out there in the world.

In regards to moral questions, I think desire utilitarianism fits the evidence best. Also, when I look and see what is in the universe, I do not find a transcendental glowing orb of “good intrinsic value” in acts of kindness, nor a transcendental glowing orb of “bad intrinsic value” in acts of rape. I do not find intrinsic value anywhere. Value emerges from the relation of desires to states of affairs, but it is not intrinsic.

>>”And of course, what if ugly, ignorant, and dishonest things are the highest moral qualities? Then you have left the highest moral quality for sthg inferior.”

Indeed! This is the whole point of my book. What if we are WRONG about morality, just like every generation that has come before us? What if we try to make the world a better place, but actually make it worse because we have mistaken what is right for what is wrong?

The whole point of my book is to ground morality in what actually exists in the universe. I reject moral systems that either (1) do not fit our moral language, so they are not talking about morality but something else, or (2) refer to things that do not actually exist, like intrinsic value or gods.

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Rhology March 26, 2009 at 9:59 am

lukeprog,

No, prescriptivity is enjoining actions on others or yourself. But if your morality only extends to enjoining things to yourself, then there is no reason to talk about it. Since there is no mechanism by which your morality SHOULD be shared by someone else, why bother even talking about?
I may have reasons for action, such as not raping a woman. And Joe might have his own reasons for action, such as raping a woman. She might have reasons not to be raped. But if there is no overarching prescriptivity, then there is nothing to do. Whoever has the power will fulfill his desires. I might be more powerful but also reasonable; I might see Joe raping the woman, I might be able to stop him, but why would I? Nothing says my morality is superior to his, after all!

This is a matter desire utilitarianism making claims about the universe that are true

But I am asking WHY I SHOULD do things that fulfill or tend to fulfill other desires?
B/c that would fulfill or tend to fulfill other desires? There's the circularity to which I referred.

This is a matter desire utilitarianism making claims about the universe that are true, whereas other theories of moral realism make claims about the universe that are false.

I am willing to enter into that presupposition for the sake of argument. I'm simply pointing out that, if your worldview is true, there is no overarching prescriptivity. No reason even to talk about morality. No reason to want society to continue, since morality is also about prescribing desires. How does DU tell me what to desire?

Changing the meaning of words without cause would bring confusion

No, we're talking about LABELLING the action. Rape is “forcing sexual activity on an unwilling subject”. That's the definition.
Now, we need to talk about whether it's “good”/”commendable” or “bad”/”reprehensible”. If we can't apply commendable (ie to be commended to others)/reprehensible (ie to be held in contempt and disgust to others) labels to things/actions/desires, again, why even talk about morality?

try A Harmony of Desires.

Read it, thanks.
One thing to note is that the statement:
All it takes is a system of ‘rewarding’ those who fulfill the desires (with grooming, sex, the sharing of food, play) and the ‘condemning’ of those who thwart the desires of others (through snarls, hisses, a swipe across the nose, and other threats).

again commits us to the infinite regress and doesn't get us anywhere. If the animal/person dislikes grooming, sex, sharing food, play, then it's bad. If he enjoys snarles, hisses, etc, then you have a problem. This is too rosy and does not acct for those who desire different things.
Further, appealing to the “reasons for action” don't tell us whether those reasons are commendable or not. You're stuck in IS, not OUGHT, despite your claims to the contrary.

I could just as well claim that, as a Sikh believer, Vahiguru defined himself as the source of moral goodness, and you are replacing Vahiguru with Yahweh. YOU are the usurper, sir.

No, 'twouldn't be me but Jesus who'd be the usurper in that case. See, my moral system is based on Christ, not on myself. Yours is based on YOU. That's what I mean.
Fortunately, Vahiguru doesn't exist.

See Why should I choose desire utilitarianism? Answer: Because it is more likely correct than other ethical theories.

Yeah, I read that one already, but thanks. It didn't take us to why we SHOULD. It just told me that desires exist and that DU is a good way to work those desires into a workable society. But it doesn't tell me why a workable society is desirable, except by circular self-reference.

you would have no doubt insisted that we cannot trust the moral ideas of someone who concludes that racism, sexism, and nationalism are bad.

Once again you display an inability to let go of instinctual feelings about good and bad. You can't bring yourself to be consistent with your own stated framework.
So what if I had? On your system, if those things fulfilled more desires, etc, they would have been good.

I do not find a transcendental glowing orb of “good intrinsic value” in acts of kindness, nor a transcendental glowing orb of “bad intrinsic value” in acts of rape

Yet you apparently experience a visceral reaction against someone who'd claim that racism, sexism, and nationalism are good.

What if we try to make the world a better place, but actually make it worse because we have mistaken what is right for what is wrong?

Once again you tumble into inconsistency. On your jacked-up system, fulfilling desires that you may think are wrong, or backwards, or archaic NOW, WERE making the world a better place BACK THEN. So you're wrong TO THEM. Who's right, and how can we know? Maybe YOU'RE making the world worse.

Cheers,
Rhology

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Rob March 26, 2009 at 4:58 pm

I am really enjoying this conversation. Thank you very much!

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lukeprog March 26, 2009 at 7:49 pm

My whole book is the explanation of why it is that we have objective and universal reasons for action to, for example, not rape. “Should” = “there are reasons for action that exist such that…” What else would should mean?

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Rhology March 27, 2009 at 9:18 am

The problem is that your book did a lot of explaining THAT there are desires and HOW we could best go about fulfilling more than we thwart, etc. What it didn't do was answer the pressing questions –
1) Ought I to fulfill desires? Ought I not thwart desires?
2) Why or why not?
3) To what can I compare a desire to find out whether it is a good or bad desire? If to other desires, how can I know whether THOSE desires are good or bad?

“Should/ought” means – you have an obligation to do this or that. It is right for you to do this or that, wrong for you to do otherwise. To say “you have a reason to do this” does not answer whether that reason is good or bad, whether it carries any obligation.

Does that make sense? You seemed to be taking a tone whereby you would enjoin your DU system on everyone, as if you were OUGHT-ing DU to other people. But if I don't accept your authority to enjoin it on me and if you can't answer the above questions, DU falls into the oblivion of all the other relativistic moral frameworks proposed by atheists.

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Richard March 28, 2009 at 6:17 am

Hello all. I started discussing morality with Luke in another thread (http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=890), but this seems like a more appropriate place to continue the discussion.

I agree with some of Rhology's criticisms of Luke's position, though, being a moral subjectivist, I also disagree with Rhology's own position. I'll concentrate here on criticising Luke's position, and perhaps defend my own position later.

First of all, Luke, you claim that you “reject moral systems that … do not fit our moral language, so they are not talking about morality but something else”. I don't accept that your definition of morality is one that fits most people's moral language. Most people are moral realists, who believe their moral statements refer to values that exist independently of minds, and they would probably not accept that when they make moral statements they are talking about desire fulfillment.

Your intuition may tell you that moral values must be based on some desire or other. If no one (even God) desires an outcome, how can it be of any moral value? But that's begging the question of what moral values are. If moral values exist independently of minds (as moral realists claim) then there are apparently no restrictions on their content. Something could be of moral value even though no one desires it.

Even if we accept, for the sake of argument, that moral values must be based on desires, there's still a massive step from there to any specific moral values. You have to weigh up competing desires against each other. And there is no objective basis for any particular system of weights, so you're still going to end up with a form of subjectivism. You may choose to weigh each person's desires equally (or should that be each sentient being's?). But that's still a choice, and it has no objective moral basis.

I may be mis-remembering, but I think you justify calling your moral values objective on the basis that desires are an objective reality. (At least that's what Alonso Fyfe does.) But the moral attitudes that I talk about (as a subjectivist) are just as real as desires. I really do disapprove of murder. You can even say that this attitude is a form of desire–a desire that murder not be done. So it would seem that by your definition subjectivists are really objectivists! This contradiction arises from confusing two different uses of “objective”. Moral attitudes and desires can objectively exist without giving rise to objective moral values. It's the latter claim which distinguishes an objectivist from a subjectivist.

I found this page of Alonso Fyfe's interesting:
http://www.alonzofyfe.com/article_ose.shtml
He starts off by saying that morality is subjective (in one sense), but then goes on to say that it's not subjective in another sense, which he calls “common moral subjectivism”. Well, I don't know whether the view he describes under that name is common, but it's certainly not anything I would call subjectivism. It's a concoction of subjectivism and objectivism, where the speaker arrives at a moral value on a subjective basis and then insists that it's really an objective moral value. If the only reason Fyfe has for not calling himself a subjectivist is that some people misuse the term, then it seems he is really a subjectivist.

I suspect you misunderstand subjectivism too. In your booklet you attributed the following view to some people: “Child-rape is moral for the pedophile because that’s what he thinks is good for him.” You didn't specifically name these people as subjectivists, but that's implied. However, a subjectivist should reject that statement. The expression “is moral for” implies an objective moral claim, albeit one that only applies to some people. The subjectivist doesn't make any objective moral claims (he believes they are meaningless). He just says “I disapprove of child-rape” (which he may express as “I think child-rape is wrong”). The pedophile may or may not approve of child-rape. (Some may commit child-rape while disapproving of what they are doing.) The subjectivist may disapprove of a pedophile committing child-rape regardless of what the pedophile thinks about it.

It seems to me that you are not really an objectivist, but you've been deterred from calling yourself a subjectivist by some misunderstandings of subjectivism.

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Richard March 28, 2009 at 6:41 am

What does “there are reasons for action that exist such that…” actually mean?

1. There are reasons why people do act such that…
2. There are reasons why people should act such that…
3. Something else. Please explain.

1 is just describing people's mental states, which makes this subjectivism. 2 makes the definition circular. Is there a 3?

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anselm March 28, 2009 at 8:26 am

Richard's analysis is quite good. Atheism is most compatible with subjectivism. Theism is entirely compatible with objective moral values (indeed, I would argue that if objective moral values exist then God must exist as an anchor point for those values, which inhere in God's very nature and which we experience in the form of divine commands).

However, it seems that atheism could be compatible with a Platonic view of moral values (e.g., objective moral values are not anchored in God but exist sui generis as abstract “forms” independent of the material universe). I would be interested to hear what atheists think of this view.

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lukeprog March 28, 2009 at 8:58 am

Thanks Richard. This is exactly the kind of discussion that is needed.

“Most people… would probably not accept that when they make moral statements they are talking about desire fulfillment.”

No, they wouldn't. Moral language is generally used to assert facts about reasons for action. Reasons for action to note rape. Reasons for action to show kindness. Etc.

So, if that's what moral language is about, let's do some investigating. Are there reasons for action that exist, such that there can be facts about them? Intrinsic values don't exist. Categorical imperatives don't exist. Intrinsic virtues don't exist.

Ah, but desires exist. If people did not desire food but instead sunlight, we wouldn't have reasons for action to feed the poor, but to give them access to sunlight. Etc.

Desire utilitarianism observes that when people use moral language they seem to be making claims about objective moral facts about reasons for action. That's the semantic part. Then there are a whole host of objectivist theories that try make claims about what those objective reasons for action are. Some say that intrinsic values are these reasons for action. Other says it is the will of God. Some say there are no reasons for action that exist, so all moral claims are false. Desire utiltiarianism says that the reasons for action that exist are desires. I think that empirical claim is true.

“If moral values exist independently of minds (as moral realists claim) then there are apparently no restrictions on their content. Something could be of moral value even though no one desires it.”

That's one definition of moral realism, but not the most common one today. By that definition, I am not a moral realist, because I think objective moral value exists in the relation between brain states and states of affairs in the world. But, I do believe something can have moral value even if no one desires it – for example if it tends to fulfill desires. I explain all this in my tiny little ebook. Have you read it?

“And there is no objective basis for any particular system of weights, so you're still going to end up with a form of subjectivism. You may choose to weigh each person's desires equally (or should that be each sentient being's?). But that's still a choice, and it has no objective moral basis.”

My claim is that the only reasons for action that happen to exist in the universe are the relations between desires and states of affairs. There is certainly no reason to count some desires as more important than others, except when they are literally “greater” – for example when my desire to get laid tonight is greater than my desire for ice cream tonight. So, in our moral calculus we count up all the desires (in any thing capable of having desires), measure their strengths, and ask: “Which desires will tend to fulfill the most desires, and which desires will tend to thwart the most desires?” The ones that tend to fulfill other desires are good desires, the ones that tend to thwart other desires are bad desires.

Of course, we have a problem of measurement. We can't yet count up all desires, and we certainly can't directly measure the strength or “greatness” of each desire, at least not until neuroscience greatly develops. So we have to guess. We have to take surveys, etc. But this is true of many sciences. Our measurement will always be imperfect.

The choice to count up moral value based on amount and strength is no less objective than the choice to count up incoming solar energy by amount and strength. That's simply how much of it there is.

“But the moral attitudes that I talk about (as a subjectivist) are just as real as desires. I really do disapprove of murder. You can even say that this attitude is a form of desire–a desire that murder not be done. So it would seem that by your definition subjectivists are really objectivists! This contradiction arises from confusing two different uses of “objective”. Moral attitudes and desires can objectively exist without giving rise to objective moral values. It's the latter claim which distinguishes an objectivist from a subjectivist.”

Indeed, we must be careful with our definitions. Have you seen this? I use “subjectivism” to refer to the claim that moral terms refer to moral facts about someone's opinion.” So if I say, “Murder is wrong,” the subjectivist reinterprets me to mean, “I believe murder is wrong.” If I truly believe murder is wrong, that statement is true. If not, it's false.

Objectivists, using my terminology, think that moral language makes claims about moral facts that exist beyond opinion. I'm an objectivist. I think that when someone says, “Murder is wrong,” he is usually NOT trying to say that “I believe murder is wrong.” He seems to be trying to make a claim of objective fact, beyond mere opinion. He may be wrong that such objective facts exist, but that is at least the purpose of his language.

Yes, most opinions express a desire. The desires expressed by opinions are certainly included in the moral calculus of desire utilitarianism. But that is only one kind of many desires. Desire utilitarianism is interested in the desires, not the opinions. Also, it's possible to have an opinion without a corresponding desire. For example, I recall that as a Christian I had the opinion that homosexuality was wrong – because that's what I'd been taught and believed – but in my latter Christian years I didn't actually have a desire for people not to have homosexual sex, though if asked I would have still said it was morally wrong because God said so. Maybe that's schizophrenic, but there is some disconnect between opinions and desires, and desire utilitarianism only takes into account the desires that may be there.

“If the only reason Fyfe has for not calling himself a subjectivist is that some people misuse the term, then it seems he is really a subjectivist.”

That's fine. It doesn't matter. The label doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if we call Pluto a “planet” or not – it still exists as it does and has the relations to other things as described. I call myself a moral objectivist because I am according to how most living moral philosophers use the term, and perhaps how the general public uses the term, too. But if you use a different definition, please give me your definition of moral subjectivism and I will tell you whether or not I'm a subjectivist by your definition.

Re: the pedophile. I think at that moment I was referring to “individual moral relativism.”

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lukeprog March 28, 2009 at 9:08 am

The analysans for “reasons for action” is a huge topic in moral philosophy. Here are just three of the top Google results:

What is a reason for action?
On treating something as a reason for action
Reasons for action: Justification vs. Explanation

There are a great many papers and books (1 2 3 4 5 6) on the philosophy of action.

This is a very important question, and I'd like to devote an entire post to it. Please watch for it.

Thanks for the post fodder.

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lukeprog March 28, 2009 at 9:17 am

Many atheists are non-naturalist moral realists (Shafer-Landau being a prominent living proponent). Many are naturalist moral realists (Griffin, Railton, Boyd, etc.) A few are somewhere in-between (the Cornell realists). Many atheists are also subjectivists, relativists, non-cognitivists, or nihilists.

I've given an extended argument for why I am an (atheist) objective moral realist. If you'd like to respond to my individual arguments, please do.

I reject subjectivism because it reinterprets everything we say to mean something we do not mean. When we say, “Murder is wrong,” we usually do not mean, “I have the opinion that murder is wrong.” We usually are trying to make a claim of objective fact.

If we are trying to make claims of objective fact but it so happens that under atheism there are no moral facts to refer to, that is called error theory.

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anselm March 28, 2009 at 12:46 pm

I have been reading through William Lane Craig's chapter on Ethics in “Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview”, and am wondering how “desire utilitarianism” would be distinguished from what he describes as “subjective preference utilitarianism”?

Subjective preference utilitarianism holds that the goal of moral actions is the satisfaction of desires or wants that express individual preferences, supplemented by a condition of rationality, so that the good consists in satisfaction of individual desires that it is rational to desire. Here, “rationality means 'descriptive rationality,' which states that one is rational if and only if one desires what all psychologically normal (i.e., statistically usual) people desire. If one is psychologically balanced, then one presumably will not choose to be a child molester. Our human natures are contingent–they could have turned out to have been different, say, if evolutionary progression had taken a different turn. Given the contingent human natures that we happen to have, whatever statistically usual people desire is what is rational to desire. And as a contingent matter of fact, such people happen not to desire to be child molesters.” (see p. 435-436).

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lukeprog March 28, 2009 at 12:54 pm

So, subjective preference utilitarianism states that an act is good if it satisfies a desire that is psychologically normal? I immediately see a great number of problems with this view, which I hope Craig points out in his book.

My responses to this view are mostly found in the links above for the questions about “preference utilitarianism” and “common utilitarianism”.

I'd like to blog my way through a theist's book after Sense and Goodness Without God. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview might be a good choice. Do you have any better recommendations, anselm?

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anselm March 28, 2009 at 5:51 pm

“Philosophical Foundations” would be good, although it is rather lengthy (630 pages–it serves as a textbook, I believe, in seminaries). But it covers just about every possible philosophical issue from a Christian perspective.

Regarding desire utilitarianism and its difference from other forms of utilitarianism, I was wondering how it would handle the following thought experiments:

A society where all people (adults and children) are socialized such that they believe incest to be desirable, they genuinely desire to engage in it, and they follow through on those desires. Would their desires and/or behavior be morally wrong?

or

A society in which it is possible to plug oneself into something like the “matrix” where you become a “brain in a vat” and all your desires can be fulfilled for the rest of one's life through stimulation of the brain without living out the actual experiences. Would there be anything morally wrong with plugging in to such a matrix?

Thanks.

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lukeprog March 28, 2009 at 9:33 pm

Typically, we would say that the matrix “satisfies” desires, not “fulfills” them. Fulfillment refers to a change in the states of affairs in the world. So, the desire to plug into the matrix would be seen by desire utilitarianism as a “bad” desire because it tends to thwart more desires than it fulfills – it tends to further desire thwartation, not desire fulfillment.

As for the incest thought experiment. Remember that desire utilitarianism judges desires as good or bad based on their tendency to thwart or fulfill desires, counting up all desires. On our planet, my suspicion is that desires for incest would tend to thwart more and greater desires than they fulfills, because constant incest would produce all kinds of recessive genetic traits that would cause a great deal of suffering.

This is a good place to bring in the “knobs” analogy, which you'll know if you've read my book. Let's say we “turn up” the knob that represents the desire for incest. We do so through the socialization in this thought experiment, for example. This results in lots of new desires for incest that are fulfilled in children and adults. But it also results in lots of other desires that are thwarted due to genetic diseases and all the emotional/financial/physical distress that results.

On the other hand, what if we “turn down” the knob that represents the desire for incest, and we turn it down all the way to 0? In this case, there are no desires for incest that could be thwarted, and there are fewer other desires that will be thwarted due to genetic abnormalities in offspring, and indeed there are a great more desires that are fulfilled because of this relative freedom from genetic abnormalities in the offspring.

So, the best thing to do with the desire for incest is to turn down the knob to 0 – unless there's some major components of the desire calculus that I'm missing, which is quite possible.

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Richard March 29, 2009 at 3:19 am

Luke. Your responses to my objections hinge on your phrase “there are reasons for action that exist such that…”. Further up the thread, I asked you to clarify what you mean by this. Instead of doing so, you referred me to several web pages discussing various possible meanings. But I need to know which meaning you have in mind.

Above I offered two interpretations:

1. There are reasons why people do act such that…
2. There are reasons why people should act such that…

The distinction I'm attempting to make is between explanatory reasons and justifying reasons. Which do you mean?

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Richard March 29, 2009 at 4:26 am

Thanks for you comment, Anselm.

As far as I'm concerned neither atheism nor theism are compatible with objective moral values, since the concept of objective moral values makes no sense to me. Moral values exist only in minds, and if God exists, his moral values are his own subjective moral values.

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lukeprog March 29, 2009 at 8:06 am

No, I get it. I said above I'm writing a whole post about this important issue. Please be patient. :)

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anselm March 29, 2009 at 10:03 am

The problem with your response to the matrix thought experiment is that from the perspective of the person “plugged in” to the matrix, there is no difference between his matrix experiences and the identical experience “in the world” that changes a “state of affairs.” So why make an arbitrary distinction that one is “bad” and the other “good” since they do an identical job of satiating desires?

The problem with your response to the incest thought experiment is that it depends on offspring being produced; what if it could be arranged that none would be through use of contraception? (Since this is a thought experiment, we can assume that technology has provided a foolproof form of contraception).

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lukeprog March 29, 2009 at 1:54 pm

Why not plug into a Matrix that satiates desires? Because moral value comes from desire fulfillment, not desire satiation. See the FAQ above re:

Why desire “fulfillment” instead of desire “satisfaction”?

and

Aren’t you just saying that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value, that we should do whatever fulfills the most desires?

As for the incest scenario. If we assume a particular universe in which the desire for incest tends to fulfill more desires than are thwarted, then yes the desire for incest is a morally good desire in that universe.

Likewise, if our universe was such that eating our own shit tended to fulfill more desires than were thwarted, then the desire to eat shit would be a morally good desire, and it would be morally good to feed shit to our children. It just so happens that is not true of our universe.

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anselm March 29, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Thanks, that's helpful (as are the FAQs). However, it is clear to me that “desire utilitarianism” does not support “objective moral values” in any generally or traditionally accepted use of the term “objective.” If values are dependent on the contingent mental states of contingent beings, they are not objectively grounded. (Of course, since atheists are not concerned about “objectivity” as traditionally conceived, this will likely not concern them, except to the extent that any attempt to come up with a “grand unified theory” of atheist ethics is bound to fail, which is why there are a such myriad of conflicting naturalistic ethical theories).

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lukeprog March 29, 2009 at 5:05 pm

See the answers to the questions about subjective vs. objective above. Or, here's the relevant section from my book:

You might think I’m saying that morality is subjective, since “good” and “bad” depend on whatever people happen to desire. This comes from a confusion about what the words “subjective” and “objective” mean.
Morality does depend on desires. If there were no desires, there would be no moral value in the universe. And if everybody desired to be surrounded by deafening noise, then it would be morally right to carry a blasting boombox everywhere you went. In this sense, morality is subjective.

But that’s not what most people mean by “subjective.” Subjective morality usually means that each of us gets to choose for ourselves what is good and bad, and nobody can be wrong. Morality is not subjective in this sense. As we saw before, you are objectively wrong if you claim that “rape is good.” Why? Because rape is an action that a person with good desires would not perform. Instead, rape comes from a bad desire; a desire that tends to thwart more and greater desires than it tends to fulfill. Since desires are the only reasons for action that exist, we have real and universal reason for actions to diminish or eliminate the desire to rape in others.

Also, consider the word “objective.” Some people use the phrase “objective morality” to refer to some kind of intrinsic value written into the fabric of the universe. But intrinsic value doesn’t exist. In this sense, objective morality doesn’t exist.

But that’s not what most people mean by “objective.” Objective morality usually means that moral statements can be true or false in the same way that scientific statements can be true or false. In this sense, morality is objective, as we saw above.

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anselm March 29, 2009 at 5:23 pm

Like I said, the ability to call desire utilitarianism a system of “objective” morality depends on redefining the word “objective.” 2 + 2 = 4 is not a contingent, but a necessary truth. If moral values is only contingently, and not necessarily true, they are not objective (in the traditional sense of the word).

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lukeprog March 29, 2009 at 5:33 pm

I guess we have different ideas about the traditional definitions of these words. To me, “objective” mean “true independent of opinion.” For example, scientific truths are objectively true. But scientific truths are not necessarily true. No, they are thoroughly contingent.

In any case, it doesn't matter what label you use to describe my ethical theory. It is “subjectivist” by your definition but claims that there are universal moral facts.

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anselm March 29, 2009 at 6:02 pm

Hmm, well I guess we also have different definitions of “universal”, since if incest is morally good or morally bad depending on the particular configuration of desires among a particular configuration of human beings then its moral status would appear to be “particular” and not “universal.” I would submit, however, that sexual relations between a parent and child is always morally wrong regardless of whether it fulfills more desires than it thwarts (just as 2 +2 always equals 4). And I would venture that you would find very, very few people who would disagree with me (because of their apprehension of what Craig calls “an objective realm of moral values”).

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lukeprog March 29, 2009 at 6:37 pm

It seems to me that for you the terms “objective” and “universal” actually mean “necessary”.

To me, “universal morality” refers to moral principles that are morally binding on all moral agents. On that definition, desire utilitarianism is a theory of universal morality.

I have no doubt that many people would say incest is morally wrong in all possible worlds. I think they are wrong. Probably, they could not even give a coherent argument as to why this is so.

Is feeding shit to your own children morally wrong in a universe in which shit is the most nourishing and tasty thing for humans to consume? Why? Because you feel it to be wrong? Or because you have a “sixth sense” that has been demonstrated to accurately perceive a Platonic realm of perfect moral values that includes on against feeding shit to your children?

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anselm March 30, 2009 at 5:53 am

As is to be expected, when the discussion gets down to a dispute over first principles we will have to agree to disagree, but suffice it to say that in my view, any ethical system that allows for the possibility that parent-child incest is morally acceptable has a serious flaw and needs to be rethought. But I appreciate the discussion; this blog functions well as a sort of “free graduate seminar.” (And you might consider applying to some philosophy Ph.D programs–although I realize that the academic job market in the humanities is not the best).

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lukeprog March 30, 2009 at 11:10 am

But why is incest wrong in all possible worlds? What is your argument? Is you argument “because it feels wrong!” ?

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anselm March 30, 2009 at 1:06 pm

No, not because we feel it is wrong, but because we know it is wrong. As J. Budziszewski has said, there are certain moral truths that “we can't not know” (see http://tinyurl.com/c4wt6b). Or as Craig has argued (as I pointed out in a thread on another post):

“The way in which moral theorists test competing ethical theories is by assessing how well they cohere with our moral experience. I take it that in moral experience we do apprehend an realm of objective moral values and duties, just as in sensory experience we apprehend a realm of objectively existing physical objects. Just as it is impossible for us to get outside our sensory input to test its veridicality, so there is no way to test independently the veridicality of our moral perceptions. As Sorley emphasized, there is no more reason to deny the objective reality of moral values than the objective reality of the physical world. In the absence of some defeater, we rationally trust our perceptions, whether sensory or moral…Most of us think that in moral experience we do apprehend objective values and obligations. Ruse himself confesses in another context, 'The man who says that it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says 2+2 = 5.' (see “Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed).

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lukeprog March 30, 2009 at 2:04 pm

Again, I see assertions, not arguments. Why should we suspect that there are moral truths that we know merely because we feel that we know them? There is nothing logically necessary about “rape is wrong” in the way that “2+2=4″ is logically necessary. And in fact, there are several cultures in which rape is right under certain circumstances, murder is acceptable under certain circumstances. And of course there are many in which incest was acceptable. But there is no culture in which 2+2=5. The equation 2+2=4 is true by definition. Not so of moral claims. They are empirical claims: that there exists a property called “wrongness” and that the act of rape somehow possesses this property in all circumstances. If you want me to accept such an ambitious positive claim, I'm going to need an argument, not merely the assertion that “It's obvious! How can you not know that?”

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anselm March 30, 2009 at 3:12 pm

As I've said before, I certainly don't expect to change your mind, since that rarely happens in exchanges like these, but undecided third parties who are reading this may find the discussion helpful as they weigh the issues.

I assume you are familiar with the concept of “proper basicality”? It applies to our knowledge of objective moral values. Not all knowledge comes through the process of deduction or empirical investigation, and our knowledge of objective moral values falls into that category–see http://tinyurl.com/cyr36d

as does our belief in other minds (see http://tinyurl.com/d94orh).

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lukeprog March 30, 2009 at 4:17 pm

I know you are asserting that belief in objective moral values is properly basic. But you've not argued as for why we should suspect that “the act of rape is wrong” is properly basic. Why is that properly basic, but not belief in a Giant Pumpkin, or belief that rape is right, or belief that psychic powers exist? Without an argument, you might as well assert anything you want to believe is properly basic, and therefore does not require justification.

Plantinga's two major arguments of reformed epistemology are the last retreat of theism. Lacking any ability to rationally justify itself, theism must say that it needs no rational justification because it's “just so.”

And now you're doing the same for your belief in objective moral values.

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anselm March 30, 2009 at 5:54 pm

As I'm sure you are aware (since it is typically discussed in introductory philosophy texts–see http://tinyurl.com/c9549n) the concept of proper basicality is key not just to reformed epistemology, but foundationalism (e.g. Thomas Reid, etc.). Not all beliefs need to be justified with evidence, since some are foundational to rational discourse itself. I hope you do not reject that principle, since if so you are flirting not just with skepticism, but solipsism.

If you have a refutation of Plantinga's argument, for example, in God and Other Minds that our belief in other minds can be evidentially justified and need not be considered properly basic, I would love to see it (might make a good topic for a future major post). Plantinga's reasoning there can also be applied to objective moral values, as indicated in the Copan text I linked to above. Our understanding that murder, rape and incest are wrong are epistemically noninferential and psychologically direct. If you choose to embrace (as you did in your comment above) the bizarre and counterintuitive position that murder, rape and incest can be morally acceptable, the burden is on you to demonstrate that and provide a defeater for our common moral experience.

As atheist Michael Martin has put it, “common sense assumes that morality is objective” (Morality and Meaning, p. 12). Since this blog bills itself as a paragon of “common sense,” I hope readers will see the merit Martin's quote.

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lukeprog March 30, 2009 at 7:06 pm

I knew it would cause confusion, but I use the term “common sense” in a specific way on this blog, as explained in my introductory post. I mean that one should apply the same type of reasoning to religious ideas as they do to everything else. They should apply their “common” sense to religious ideas, not a “special” way of thinking reserved for justifying whatever they want to justify. When you eliminate double standards from your thinking, this results in atheism. That is what I mean by “common sense atheism.”

I certainly do not mean that atheism is common sense in that this is the way most people think. Most people are not atheists. I don't have much respect for that kind of common sense, the common sense that the sun goes around the earth or that we have a sixth sense for directly detecting moral values. This blog does not promote that kind of common sense, but consistency is thinking. Perhaps I should have called it “No Double Standards”, but that was taken.

I disagree strongly with Brink and Martin who assert that objective moral realism has no burden of proof simply because it is what our ignorant ancestors assumed. I also disagree with you that objective moral values are known through properly basic beliefs.

I do have upcoming posts on Plantinga and also on foundationalism vs. coherentism, etc. What I'd like to focus on right now is that you have no good reasons to think that “rape is wrong” is a properly basic belief, any more than you have reason to think that “homosexuality is wrong” is a properly basic belief.

In addition to your inability to explain why “rape is wrong” counts as a properly basic belief (but not a billion other possible basic beliefs, like “Vishnu is god”), I would like to point out that even assuming proper basicality does not provide you with an account of objective moral values anything like what you'd want. Either you must assume that all moral facts (relating to an infinite number of propositions and their rightness/wrongness) are properly basic (including, say, “eating cheese on Sundays is morally permissable), or else you must claim that the objective moral value of all other actions can be derived from those which are properly basic. But I see no mechanism to do so. Even if one assumes, say, 500 properly basic beliefs about the moral value of 500 particular actions, how can all the other moral facts be deduced from those taken as properly basic?

anselm, I could be wrong, but it seems to me you are taking Plantinga and Craig at their word without really thinking about what they are saying. You assume they must have a good argument for why “rape is wrong” can be properly basic but “Shiva is god” cannot. But as it turns out, Plantinga and Craig do not have good answers to this question, and I suspect you do not, either.

I do appreciate your prolific quotes, as they point to further sources of reading, but I am not persuaded by quoting other people who give bad arguments (Plantinga and Craig and Martin). I am only persuaded if you give a good argument.

I have given an argument for why objective moral values can be derived from reasons for action that exist (aka, without God). I have defended that argument against all attacks so far (with some pending replies).

You have not given an argument for why we should think that “rape is wrong” is properly basic, whereas a billion other possible basic beliefs (for example, “killing in wartime is wrong” or “Shiva is God”) are not properly basic.

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anselm March 30, 2009 at 7:49 pm

I assure you I only quote arguments that I have evaluated and agree with. In another comment I sincerely compliment you on being “eerily prolific”; however, I'm afraid I am doing well to read widely and evaluate critically what I read; I don't have time to come up with my own epistemology from scratch.

However, in my view you making an unrealistic demand of the notion of “proper basicality.” As C.S. Lewis noted in “The Abolition of Man” the notion of the Tao, or the moral law, is part of the common, human moral experience, just as is our belief that others we interact with have minds and are not cleverly constructed androids (although there is no way we could ever prove otherwise). Perhaps you do not share the same immediate apprehension of moral revulsion against rape, etc., in a noninferential way–i.e., you believe you must go through a deductive reasoning process to justify your revulsion. That's fine; if so we have hit an impasse. But I believe third party readers of this exchange (please tell me you have a lot of readers and that there is an audience for this time-consuming–though enjoyable–exchange!) will recognize the internal veridicality of their sense of objective moral values and be able to distinguish that sense from subjective opinions/matters of taste. Thanks.

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lukeprog March 30, 2009 at 8:19 pm

Fair enough, I'm glad you critically evaluate what you read. Some questions that still haven't been answered:

1) Why is “Rape is wrong” properly basic but not “Shiva exists”?

2) What makes something qualify as a properly basic belief?

3) Why should we think that common or universal assumptions need no justification, especially since so many common assumptions have been overturned by modern science?

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anselm March 31, 2009 at 5:59 am

It occurs to me that an explanatory addendum to this discussion would be useful for those of your readers who don't have time to read all the links provided in a comment (I can sympathize with them, since I often don't have such time myself–and since this thread is already so long, why not?)

Under the theory of proper basicality, epistemically noninferential beliefs such as our apprehension of objective moral values have “warrant” to the extent that they are formed by cognitive faculties functioning properly, i.e., as God designed them to. On theism, our cognitive faculties are constructed by their designer according to a design plan aimed at producing true beliefs, including true beliefs regarding the moral values that inhere in God's nature as an all-good being (see the ontological argument) and which we experience noninferentially and psychologically directly as moral imperatives. God, as the supreme knower and locus of both moral standards and moral knowledge, has created us in his image, an important part of which involves giving us what is needed to have moral knowledge, as he does.

Conversely, on atheistic naturalism, our cognitive faculties are aimed at survival, not truth, so we can have no confidence in their deliverances (including their deliverances in regard to our construction of moral and ethical theory, e.g., “desire utilitarianism”). Indeed, on atheism, none of our beliefs have warrant because atheism presupposes that the faculties that produce our beliefs are adapted only for survival–any overlap with truth-attainment would be coincidental (but that gets into the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, which perhaps you will post on in the future).

I'm sure you are already familiar with the above, but wanted to provide it for any readers who were not. Thanks.

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lukeprog March 31, 2009 at 7:31 am

Yeah, this is Plantinga's argument. But has he given this argument for the direct apprehension of moral values? To my knowledge he only proposed the sensus divinitatus as a faculty for directly perceiving God. But I haven't read every word Plantinga has ever wrote.

One problem with all this is that we do not have a sensus divinitatus, any more than we have a sensus moralitatus or sense implanted by the Flying Spaghetti Monster for directly sensing him.

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faithlessgod April 10, 2009 at 12:55 am

anselm: Under the theory of proper basicality, epistemically noninferential beliefs such as our apprehension of objective moral values have “warrant” to the extent that they are formed by cognitive faculties functioning properly, i.e., as God designed them to.On theism, our cognitive faculties are constructed by their designer according to a design plan aimed at producing true beliefs, including true beliefs regarding the moral values that inhere in God’s nature as an all-good being (see the ontological argument) and which we experience noninferentially and psychologically directly as moral imperatives.God, as the supreme knower and locus of both moral standards and moral knowledge, has created us in his image, an important part of which involves giving us what is needed to have moral knowledge, as he does.

Since such direct apprehension of objective moral values is in error and unreliable – a combinationof the Argument from Queerness and the Argument from Relativity – this is evidence that such a cognitive and connative capacity is not provided by god.

anselm: Conversely, on atheistic naturalism, our cognitive faculties are aimed at survival, not truth, so we can have no confidence in their deliverances (including their deliverances in regard to our construction of moral and ethical theory, e.g., “desire utilitarianism”).Indeed, on atheism, none of our beliefs have warrant because atheism presupposes that the faculties that produce our beliefs are adapted only for survival–any overlap with truth-attainment would be coincidental (but that gets into the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, which perhaps you will post on in the future).I’m sure you are already familiar with the above, but wanted to provide it for any readers who were not.

a)The wide range of heuristics and biases discovered in cognitive psychology and supported by neuroscience is evidence in favour of evolution and against being given such a faculty by god. 

b) Our congitive and connative capacities are the result of practical and reliable satisficing not maximising conditions. Again what we expect under evolution not theistical design. 

c) Platinga fails to make the type-token distinction and assumes that our belief-desire combination are formed only in respect to (repeatable) token events. This is not how they work. We have belief and (malleable) desire type forming capacities, which is far simpler than specificaly token forming capacities. That is our beleifs are formed with a background of cohering with our other beleifs and our desires formed with a background of harmonising with our other desires. The crossword analogy explains this -we not only have clues that can generate a number of potential words but the surrounding partial solutions of others words also helps select the actual word that really fits. This demolishes Platinga’s assumption as to how belief-desire compounds are generated.

d) Stephen Law provides further criticims of Platinga’s  argument 

All in all your position is a controversial (if that does not grant you too much) and, certainly, unsupported position from within the field of practical reasoing. Desire Utilitarianism strives to be based on most likely and best supported approaches in related fields as it utilises beleif-desire psychology here. It is empricaly in the sense that should such theories be succesfully challange and modified or replaced that would affect Desire Utilitarianism, however Platinga’s argument has fallend deadborn from the press – except amongst a certain heavily biased audience – and has hardly warranted any repsonse from professionals in that field. But some, as I have noted above, have bothered to responded to this poor argument.

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faithlessgod April 10, 2009 at 1:30 am

Another point is that Desire Utilitarianism is an ethical naturalist approach and the issues here are different to that of naturalism simpliciter. The qualifying prefix makes a significant difference here. It is based on features of the world that exist – beliefs and desires. Even you and Platinga have to grant this in order to you to have  an argument (however poor in my opinion) against naturalism simpliciter.

This makes no difference to Desire Utilitarianism. It does not require that such faculties have evolved – although this is the most likely given the evidence -  only that they exist and to criticise it on this basis is to commit the genetic fallacy.

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lukeprog April 10, 2009 at 6:36 am

faithlessgod,

Exactly.

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jess April 18, 2009 at 3:17 am

Luke, I’m reading through your book again (V1.0) and I was struck by a paragraph on page 25:-

“A desire to rape is bad because it tends to thwart more and greater desires than it fulfills. A desire to show kindness  is good because it tends to fulfill more and greater desires than it thwarts.”

I was following your arguments okay but then you introduced the idea of “greater desires” in that paragraph without any explanation of what makes one desire “greater” than another. How do we measure that?

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jess April 18, 2009 at 5:56 am

Hmmm…perhaps I wasn’t paying attention! Why it didn’t strike me until the paragraph on page 25 rather than the second paragraph on page 24 I don’t know. But nevertheless, my question about “greater desires” still stands.

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lukeprog April 18, 2009 at 4:41 pm

jess: I was following your arguments okay but then you introduced the idea of “greater desires” in that paragraph without any explanation of what makes one desire “greater” than another. How do we measure that?

Talking about “greater” desires just recognizes that we have more reason for action to do some things than others. Your desire to not be raped is greater than your desire to eat chocolate. You have more reason for action to avoid rape than to each chocolate.

We do not have the best tools to measure this, but we did not have the best tools to measure temperature at one time, either. But we could still tell – in many cases – which of two things was warmer. Even with modern technology there are still cases where we cannot tell which of two things are warmer, though that is rare.

So our tools have a ways to develop, but we will always have imperfect measurement precision, as in any science.

But the situation is probably better than you imagine. Economists have very sophisticated tools to measure “willingness to pay,” which directly measure which of two or more desires are greater, and assigns numbers to the value that things have to certain people.

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jess April 18, 2009 at 6:56 pm

lukeprog: Talking about “greater” desires just recognizes that we have more reason for action to do some things than others. Your desire to not be raped is greater than your desire to eat chocolate. You have more reason for action to avoid rape than to each chocolate.

Thanks for the clarification. I know it could be dismissed as mere semantics, but it seems to me you are using “greater” when the more appropriate word would be “stronger”. “Greater” implies “better” to some degree (IMHO) which I gather is not what you meant. I tend not to dismiss things as mere semantics – I think words have a depth of meaning that often operate at a subconscious level which influences how we feel about what we are hearing or reading, and can turn us “on” or “off” without us being aware of it.

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lukeprog April 18, 2009 at 7:20 pm

jess,

Yes, you may be right. Perhaps “stronger” is a more appropriate word.

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Lorkas May 27, 2009 at 7:47 am

I’ve been thinking lately that this theory seems to be only semantically different from many other atheistic morality theories. For example, I’ve heard some (like Sam Harris) talk about morality as minimizing suffering. You could reframe this into desire utilitarianism simply by pointing out that people desire not to suffer (indeed, suffering is often caused by some desire being thwarted).

Another example would be maximizing happiness. Again, this doesn’t differ substantially from desire utilitarianism, because it is the fulfillment of desires that makes a person experience happiness.

How is desire utilitarianism more than semantically different from these other ethical theories?

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lukeprog May 27, 2009 at 9:10 pm

Lorkas: How is desire utilitarianism more than semantically different from these other ethical theories?

You’d have to point to a particular ethical theory for me to contrast it with desire utilitarianism.

Sam Harris seems to be saying that suffering has intrinsic negative value, so we should minimize it. I do not think suffering has intrinsic value at all. However, we generally have reasons for action to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires by way of suffering. But suffering may not always be bad. For example, we may have reasons for action to encourage parents to present their children with large challenges, which may occasionally result in (what is felt to be by whiny teenagers) suffering.

But I dunno. I’m not familiar with Harris’ ethical theory. If you name an ethical theory I will tell you how different it is from desire utilitarianism.

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Lorkas May 28, 2009 at 6:15 am

(For the sake of argument)

It seems to me that you could justify a parent’s behavior to children with a suffering-minimization theory as well as you can with a desire-fulfillment-maximization theory. That is, you might say, from a D.U. position, that the thwarting of the child’s desires (to hang out with friends rather than study) is balanced by desire fulfillment in the future. That is, if a student studies now, she can go to a better college and eventually (perhaps) make more money, giving her more clout to fulfill her desires later on.

In the same way, the “suffering” now of studying can minimize suffering later in life, by allowing the individual to avoid missing bills, etc.

I think this is because we can define suffering as “the feeling I experience when my desires are thwarted” and then the theories really are saying the same thing. I just want to know if you think this assessment is valid.

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Kevin June 3, 2009 at 1:39 pm

Just finished listening to your audiobook and perusing the FAQ, but didn’t find anything that might address my question about desire utilitarianism (DU).

To use a random example, I think DU would conclude that it is wrong of a stranger to hit me with a bat.  I have a desire not to be injured, the batter has a desire to injure me, but the batter’s desire is morally bad because it is “such as to thwart more and greater desires than are fulfilled” (What is Morality?, p. 24)  by hitting me.

Further, one of the alleged advantages of this moral theory is that it deals with something real, namely, desires.  Given how you discuss the nature of desires, especially when addressing the question of whether certain animals have desires, it seems clear that a desire is identical with and/or caused by some brain event(s).  This would strengthen your theory, since we can point to something empirical as the desire, or cause of it, rather than intangibles like moral absolutes, Forms, abstract rights, etc.

With that said, I can now come to my question.  There are many things that, if asked, people would say they desire, or don’t desire.  If asked whether I want to be hit with a bat, I’d say, “No, I desire not to be hit with a bat.”  This desire is crucial to evaluating the morality of my fictional assailant’s desires and subsequent action.  The difficulty is that I don’t go around desiring not to be hit with a bat (or not to be raped, murdered, etc.).  Assuming in my example, the batter hits me from behind, and thus I am not currently desiring not to be hit, how does this affect DU’s evaluation of his action and desire?  It would seem that there are no desires in conflict here, since I am thinking of other things, and he is thinking of hitting me.  If DU depends on desires being real, then the batter may have the moral high ground here, since my desire not to be hit does not exist at the moment he hits me.

Would it not be better to describe desires as dispositions?  I have a disposition to desire not to be hit, even though I am not currently desiring it.  I am disposed to desire not to be robbed, and so on, even though I don’t always entertain those desires.  This is what should be taken into consideration, not what desires I have from moment to moment.

The difficulty I’m trying to indicate is similar to a problem with defining knowledge as a subspecies of belief (and I can’t recall to whom I owe this insight).  You may know that Paris is the capitol of France, but you don’t walk around constantly believing in this (assuming belief is the act of mentally assenting to a proposition).  It’s better to describe your knowledge that Paris is the capitol of France as a disposition to believe this proposition in certain circumstances, e.g., when asked what is the capitol of France (along with the needed justifications for the belief, of course).  It makes sense to say you know this fact, even when you aren’t actively thinking of it and believing it.  Is there not a similar problem with desires in DU?  Should the theory speak of dispositions to desire or not desire things, rather than whatever a person happens to be desiring at any given time?

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lukeprog June 3, 2009 at 4:29 pm

Kevin,

Great question. I’ll say more about this later, but DU does not distinguish between conscious and unconscious desires. I rarely think about how I desire to not be raped, but we can test whether I actually have this desire by putting me in a situation where it appears I will be raped, and watching what I do. I predict I will take extreme actions to avoid being raped. The best way to explain that is that I have strong desires to not be raped, and I believe the actions I choose will help me avoid rape.

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lukeprog April 29, 2010 at 10:22 pm

Desirism has a ‘substantial online presence’ according to Omnis affirmatio est negatio. Hmm…

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ConsiderAtheism June 19, 2010 at 10:20 am

Hey Luke,

Thanks for linking me to this page. I haven’t gotten around to reading all of it yet. But what do you think of Fyfe’s other books? Desirism is intriguing to me, but I’m not quite convinced yet. So I may just read all of his(and yours) work on it.

Thanks.

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lukeprog June 19, 2010 at 11:49 am

ConsiderAtheism,

‘A Better Place’ is, currently, his central statement on Desirism.

I don’t think anyone should be convinced by Desirism. I’m not convinced. Besides, Desirism hasn’t been put to the test of peer review, though nearly all the components that make up Desirism have.

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bschneid November 6, 2010 at 7:04 pm

@Lukeprog I do not understand how stronger/weaker desires can be appropriately considered. Consider this scenario: A small child is extremely angry with you and hits you with a pool noodle. Now his desire to hit you is much stronger than your weak desire to not get hit. At this point is it “good” for the child to hit someone with a noodle?

The strength and weakness of a desire seems to be in preference of the individual. A man 6’8″ 200lbs. surely has a weaker desire of getting punched than someone who is significantly smaller. Desires can be argued to be universal, however their strengths can not. So at this point can desirism actually be universal?

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Luke Muehlhauser November 6, 2010 at 10:36 pm

bschneid,

As it happens, that is episode #9. :)

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